CrutchMaster is flying, or so it seems, as he glides and darts around the stage at P.S. 122, the seminal downtown theater space in New York's East Village. He takes off on a skateboard, propelling himself along with his aluminum crutches — first one, then the other — like a skier savoring a downhill run. Then he retraces his route, this time without the board. It's just him, dressed in low-riding baggy pants, a hip-hop beat throbbing in the background, and the crutches, his wings. As he crosses the stage, he practically hovers, his feet barely touching the ground.
CrutchMaster, aka Bill Shannon, is light on his feet because he has to be. The 30-year-old Brooklyn-based dancer has a hip deformity from a childhood bout with Perthese's disease. The condition prevents him from putting much weight on his legs without experiencing severe pain — no small predicament for a dancer. But Shannon, who is well regarded in the edgy performance scene here and abroad, has solved the problem by thinking about dance in a different way. "You never see me throw my arms up in the air, because the weight is on my shoulders," he says. "That's why my dance looks like an optical illusion. It's the opposite of what you imagine it should look like."
In an improvisational piece called "Old Rain," Shannon extends his legs and crutches at impossible angles and strikes gravity-defying poses. Yet despite his reliance on struts of inflexible metal, he appears fluid, weightless. "You have to believe in your gut," says Shannon, who will be performing in Washington, DC this month. "You're not deciding where the dance is going, you're allowing the dance to take you someplace. That's what flying means. This energy, this force, carries you. It takes away the weight of your life. It's a spiritual thing."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.